Xanax is capable of producing physical dependence and addiction because it can produce long-term changes in the brain’s normal balance of chemicals.
Xanax is the most well-known form of alprazolam[i], a medication prescribed to treat conditions that include panic disorder and other forms of anxiety. Alprazolam belongs to a large group of substances known as benzodiazepines. Anyone who abuses a benzodiazepine medication runs the risk of experiencing serious side effects, including the onset of diagnosable addiction.
Xanax and all other benzodiazepines[ii] (e.g., Ativan and Valium) belong to a class of medications known as sedative-hypnotics or tranquilizers. They produce their effects by slowing down the normal rate of cell-to-cell communication inside the brain. For this reason, tranquilizers belong to an even larger group of medications known as central nervous system depressants. In addition to anxiety-related conditions, doctors prescribe benzodiazepines for the treatment of depression, as well as certain types of seizures and even for treating alcohol withdrawal.
Broadly speaking, there are two forms of Xanax abuse. Some people have legitimate prescriptions for the medication and fall into a pattern of abuse by taking it more often or in larger amounts than intended. Other people take Xanax without holding a doctor’s prescription. Anyone who consumes the medication in this second set of circumstances also meets the definition for abuse, no matter how much Xanax they take, or how often.
Anyone who abuses Xanax (or any other benzodiazepine) can undergo significant changes in their behavior, including such things as:
In addition, anyone who consumes the medication inappropriately can develop some of the well-known side effects of benzodiazepine use. Examples of these side effects include:
Anyone who takes Xanax has a chance of developing a physical dependence on the medication’s effects. In people following the terms of a legitimate prescription, this is not necessarily a dire event. That’s because a doctor can note the presence of dependence and make adjustments that prevent progression of uncontrolled Xanax addiction. However, in people who misuse or abuse the medication, lack of a doctor’s oversight greatly increases the chance that addiction will eventually occur.
Xanax is capable of producing physical dependence and addiction[iii] because it can produce long-term changes in the brain’s normal balance of chemicals. Specifically, consumption of the medication can lead to increases in the brain’s supply of the chemical dopamine. In the region known as the pleasure center, heightened dopamine levels create sensations of euphoria.
Eventually, the brain will come to see the presence of Xanax as part of its normal operating conditions. When this adjustment occurs, the stage for dependence/addiction is set. Symptoms of addiction can include:
No one can say exactly how long a person must abuse Xanax before symptoms of addiction begin to appear. In addition, no one can say exactly what level of consumption is needed to trigger addiction. However, risks are generally highest in people who abuse the medication for at least half a year.
When addicted users stop taking Xanax, withdrawal usually begins within half a day to a day. Benzodiazepines are known for their potential to produce significant, potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms[iv]. Examples of these symptoms include:
By frequently taking excessive amount of the medication, people who abuse Xanax also repeatedly expose themselves to risks for an overdose[v]. Common symptoms of overdose include:
The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that nearly 9,000 Americans died after overdosing on Xanax or some other benzodiazepine in 2015 (the last year with available statistics)[vi]. Since 2002, the number of such deaths has more than quadrupled.
People addicted to Xanax or any other type of benzodiazepine typically qualify for diagnosis of a condition called tranquilizer use disorder. Doctors also call this condition sedative, hypnotic or anxiolytic use disorder[vii]. In addition to addiction, the definition for tranquilizer use disorder covers non-addicted involvement in a harmful pattern of medication abuse. Doctors group addiction and non-addicted abuse together because symptoms of the two conditions frequently overlap.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that roughly 618,000 Americans over the age of 11 met the terms for tranquilizer use disorder in 2016[viii]. Most of those affected are over the age of 25. Roughly 188,000 young adults age 18 to 25 are also affected. In addition, tranquilizer use disorder affects approximately 86,000 preteens and younger teenagers.
Whether linked to Xanax abuse or the abuse of some other benzodiazepine, tranquilizer use disorder is a treatable condition. At Transformations Treatment Center, we specialize in the treatment of substance use disorders. Our highly trained staff relies on proven techniques that get to the heart of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction issues. We strive to help each client achieve sobriety and prepare for the long-term challenges of remaining healthy and substance-free.